In Defense of Sad Books

May 26, 2022 § 6 Comments

(PSST…before we begin, summer reading is coming! If you’re in the Alexandria area, I’d love to see you at Old Town Books on Thursday, June 2, at 7:00pm, where I’ll be presenting my Summer Reading Guide for ages 6-16, with lots of personal shopping to follow! Tickets can be purchased here.)

It has been six years since Lauren Wolk penned her Newbery Honor-winning novel, Wolf Hollow (Ages 10-14), one of the single greatest works of literature I have ever read. (Yes, I’m counting adult books.) It’s a book whose comparisons to other great American novels, most commonly To Kill a Mockingbird, are entirely warranted.

Still, over those six years, I’ve grown weary of recommending the book. When I’ve tried to bring it into schools for book clubs, I’ve been told, “It’s a magnificent book, but I’m worried it will upset kids.” When parents ask me to describe the plot, their skepticism radiates off them: Why would I share a story like that with my child? Do they really need to experience such sadness? Won’t it frighten them? Erode their innocence?

Neither of my kids was old enough for the book when it came out, so when the sequel released earlier this spring, My Own Lightning, I decided to revisit the original, this time aloud with my eleven year old. And I’ll admit: I had not remembered how sad it is. Reading it the second time around, this time through the lens of a parent with a child the same age as the protagonist, I did periodically wonder, Is this too much? When our kids have the rest of their lives to discover pain, should storytime be exclusively reserved for funny, fantastical, feel-good themes?

I had also not remembered how extraordinary the writing is. How Lauren Wolk is that rare writer as well versed at writing gorgeous stand-alone sentences as casting these sentences into a tight arc that moves breathlessly towards its conclusion. Not one word is wasted in this novel—not one word—which is a rare, rare gift for a parent reading aloud.

I had also not remembered how extraordinary the protagonist is. How even in the midst of terrible cruelty, terrible sadness, terrible truth telling, Annabelle finds within herself strength, resilience, and unwavering hope. Through the goodness of Annabelle’s actions and the support of her parents, brothers, and teacher, the reader is never without light. That light might be subtle, but it’s undeniably present.

I had also not remembered what an historical novel set between two world wars can reveal about our country, about the men who left for war and came back changed in ways that sometimes bred more misunderstanding and judgment from others than compassion. About the way neighbors of German descent were suddenly regarded with suspicion—or worse. About the way generations of families tightened belts, hunkered under one roof, ate off their own garden plots, and held their breath in a climate of intense uncertainty.

Wolf Hollow is about all of this without really being about any of it. Strictly speaking, it’s about one girl in a tiny Pennsylvania town who is on the receiving end of physical threats and violence from a new classmate—and chooses to stay silent about it for one beat too long. This silence inadvertently casts suspicion on a veteran named Toby, a mysterious outlier in the community, whom many regard as dangerous but whom Annabelle has always seen as gentle and kind. Against mounting odds, Annabelle tries to save Toby and clear his name.

And yet. While the tears streamed from my own eyes in the final chapters, my daughter’s eyes remained dry. To say she loved the book is an understatement: we have rarely moved so quickly though a read aloud and onto its sequel, because she could not get enough. (We’re halfway through the sequel, so keep your eyes on Instagram for that update.) She was captivated, riveted, couldn’t look away. But she was not gutted in the way that I was reading it. Neither was she horrified or haunted. “I like books that tell what life is really like,” she told me. “Not enough books tell the truth.”

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2021 Gift Guide: Young Adult Fiction for Ages 13+

December 9, 2021 § Leave a comment

All good things must come to an end, so here we are at my final Gift Guide post of the year. I didn’t want to send you into the holidays without some fun, gripping, eye-opening, occasionally heart-wrenching new reads for your teens!

The titles below are truly stand-out works of fiction. But it doesn’t have to stop here! If you’re looking for graphic novels, remember that there are three not-to-be-missed titles for teens at the end of my Graphic Novels Gift Guide post. (And for mercy’s sake, if your teen hasn’t discovered the Heartstopper graphic novel series by now, with the fourth out in a few weeks, please remedy that now.) And, if non-fiction is your teen’s jam, check out Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Shutdown, included in my Middle-Grade Gift Guide post.

Finally, a gentle reminder that with YA increasingly finding readership among adults in addition to teens, it skews older than it used to. The subject matter is getting more mature and, oftentimes, downright heavy. If you have young teens, encourage them not to graduate from middle-grade literature too quickly; there are a rising number of gems being expressly written for the 10-14 crowd, with elevated prose and complex characters (there are at least four favorites in this earlier post, for example). That said, pay close attention to the age ranges listed below for each title, and I’ll be sure to follow each review with any trigger warnings.

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Spring Break Beckons: Middle-Grade Round Up for Ages 7-14

March 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

I spent the winter reading. A lot. And that’s good news for your readers, especially those eager to squirrel away with a new story (or three) over Spring Break. All of the recommendations below are books published this year (with the exception of a late 2020 release). Some of them I’ve already talked about on Instagram, but there are surprises, too. Some skew younger and some older, so be sure to consult the age ranges for each. There are graphic novels, novels in verse, mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction, memoirs, and realistic fiction.

As always, report back and tell me what your kids thought!

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“Having Arms is Totally Overrated”

January 28, 2021 § 2 Comments

A friend once confided in me that she hated reading aloud to her kids; even more, she hated how bad she felt about hating it. Her kids were now reading independently, so she had hoped she’d be off the hook; and yet, they didn’t love reading. She worried she was failing them by not investing in time to read aloud. (Is anyone harder on herself than a mother?)

It’s true that I’m a passionate advocate for reading aloud to kids long after they are reading on their own. The benefits are vast (I’ve listed ten here), with the greatest being that our voice brings literature alive in a way that entices children to continue putting in the work on their own. But I’ve also always pressed parents to choose books they will enjoy as much as their kids, because our enjoyment should be genuine. No one can sniff out a half-hearted effort like a kid, and the last thing we want to convey to our kids is that reading is a chore.

Here’s what I told my friend: park your guilt at the door and do you. You love to read, so read alongside your children. When they’re ready for bed, or whenever you think you should be reading to them, get your own book, have them get their books, and snuggle together while reading quietly. We call these “reading parties” in our house—a term my son coined years ago. I have another friend who calls them “stop, drop, and read” moments, where everyone drops what they are doing, grabs a book, and reads together for at least fifteen minutes. Simply by enjoying your own book, you are modeling for your children the value your family places on reading.

There’s something else I recommend, if you’re looking for ways to connect with your kids around reading but aren’t keen to read to them—or, as happens to the best of us, are having trouble finding the time. Consider reading to yourself a book they’ve recently read and loved. Maybe even something they’re reading right now (my daughter and I are currently doing this with the crazy fun new supernatural thriller Amari and the Night Brothers; she leaves it outside her bedroom door each night and I grab it before I get into bed). What better message can we send than, I value your reading so much that I’m choosing to pick up one of your recommendations?

Before I fell down the rabbit hole of 2021 reading, my daughter convinced me to read two Dusti Bowling novels she inhaled in December: Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus (Ages 9-13) and its sequel, Momentous Events in the Life of a Cactus (Ages 10-14). I’m not sure why these evaded me when they first came out a few years ago, because the characters—every single one—are absolutely delightful. (I’ll add that the first book would make a terrific read aloud, too.)

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2020 Gift Guide Kicks Off: My Favorite Chapter Book

October 15, 2020 § 2 Comments

Yes, it’s time! With supply chain challenges predicted towards the end of the year, and reading one of the few escapes we’re allowed these days, I’m kicking off this year’s Gift Guide a few weeks early, and you can expect weekly posts through Thanksgiving. There will be lots of round-ups with lists for all ages, littles through teens. (And yes, there will be one exclusively on graphic novels.) But I’m beginning today by highlighting one verrrrrry special book that came out this week. Usually, I kick off my Gift Guide with my favorite picture book of the year (and we’ll get to that, I promise), but I’m turning tradition on its head (it’s 2020, after all) and we’re going to start with a book for older readers and listeners. If you keep your eyes on my Instagram this week, you could even win a copy!

Let me start by saying that I am not, by nature, a nonfiction fan. Let me add that I don’t think my ten-year-old daughter has ever picked up a nonfiction book of her own volition. (She rarely lets me read the Author’s Note in a picture book!) Then there’s the fact that this book chronicles a story whose ending most of us already know. In fact, it’s one our family has already encountered in two previous kids’ books. So, how on earth did this nonfiction book—229 pages before the additional 40 pages of footnotes—end up a favorite 2020 read of our entire family?

I remember like it’s yesterday: picking up my son at camp the first week of July, 2018, and having him greet me every afternoon with, “Are they out yet?” Since June 23, our family—like millions around the world—had been glued to the news coverage of the twelve young soccer players and their coach, trapped inside a rapidly flooding cave in Northern Thailand after a field trip went wrong. The successful seventeen-day rescue mission that followed, where thousands of rescuers from around the world tackled one seemingly impossible obstacle after another, captivated people not only because of its tremendous scope and scale, but because at the center was a group of sweet, soccer-loving kids.

As it turns out, Thai-American children’s author Christina Soontornvat was visiting family in Thailand at the time, her plane touching down the same day the children went missing. We may have been riveted by the story on our other side of the globe, but the Thai people were consumed by it. Life as they knew it was temporarily suspended. Schools were closed; vigils were held. Farmers voluntarily sacrificed their land to the drainage operation, while others led drillers through the wild jungles surrounding the cave, and still others cooked food for volunteers. The experience for Soontornvat was such that, a few months later, she returned to Northern Thailand to spend time with the rescued boys and their coach, paving the way for an exhaustive undertaking of interviews with nearly all the key figures in the rescue.

In All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys Soccer Team (Ages 10-16), Soontornvat has written a chapter book that reads like fiction while telling the most textured, suspenseful, holistic version of this incredible true story to date. If there was ever a year when we needed a story that showcases the very best of humanity—the strength, ingenuity, and kindness exhibited when we come together as helpers—it is 2020.

Give this book to the tweens and teens in your life. If they won’t pick it up, read it to them, because there’s a particular power in hearing Soontornvat’s words spoken aloud. My teenage son inhaled this book on his own, but I read it aloud to my daughter, and it was she who kept exclaiming, “I know what’s going to happen, and I’m still on the edge of my seat!” I’ve often heralded how fun it is to learn alongside our children, and All Thirteen is a brilliant example of a book that has something to teach us—about Thai culture, about science and engineering, about the nail-biting niche of cave diving, and about the nature of teamwork and the human capacity for survival—on every single page.

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Read Alouds Inspired by the Pandemic

April 9, 2020 Comments Off on Read Alouds Inspired by the Pandemic

You need only consider the two chapter books I’ve just finished reading to my children to glean the wild fluctuations in mood characteristic of Home Life During the Pandemic. The first, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793—a historical novel set during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia—is dark, gripping, macabre, and mind-blowing. The second, Louis Sachar’s Wayside School: Beneath the Cloud of Doom—thirty interconnected stories about the students at the quirkiest school in literary history—is silly, preposterous, dry-witted, and a rip-roaring good time…while still being a tad apocalyptic, because I can’t resist a theme. If we’re doomed to spend all day, every day, in each other’s presence, while the pendulum of the wider world swings dramatically between fear and hope, heartbreak and grace, serious headlines and funny memes, it seems only appropriate that our read alouds should follow suit.

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2019 Gift Guide: Middle-Grade Fiction for Ages 8-14

December 15, 2019 § 2 Comments

The category of middle-grade fiction is rapidly broadening. On the one side are novels accessible to 8-12 year olds, while on the other are heavier, more mature stories aimed at the 10-14 crowd. As always, I’ve indicated age ranges after each title. Those with kids on the older end: don’t be in a hurry to move your kids to young-adult fiction. There’s still plenty of richness for the taking here.

The first five novels are new to this bog; the others are ones I’ve reviewed earlier in the year but couldn’t resist repeating, because they have mad gift potential. Or maybe it’s just that I’m madly in love with all of them. 2019: what a year. (And I can’t wait to see you in 2020. This wraps my Gift Guide, and I wish all of you a very Happy Holidays.)

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2019 Gift Guide: Nonfiction Favs for Ages 4-14

December 5, 2019 § 8 Comments

Our children are blessed to be growing up at a time when kids’ nonfiction is being published almost as rapidly as fiction—and with as much originality! On this comprehensive list you’ll find new books for a range of ages on a range of subjects, including geology, biology, astronomy, art, World War Two, American History, survival, current events…and even firefighting. (Psst, I’m saving nonfiction graphic novels for the next post, just to give you something to look forward to.) Hooray for a fantastic year for nonfiction!

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“The Bravest Thing a Person Can Do”: Three Immigrant Stories

July 12, 2019 Comments Off on “The Bravest Thing a Person Can Do”: Three Immigrant Stories

These provocative words hail from Jasmine Warga’s Other Words from Home, one of three new books with a unique, powerful presentation of the immigrant experience for a different age group. Whether set in the past or present, these stories have never been more relevant to share with our children. If our kids are someday to have a hand in the creation of fair, just, compassionate policy, they should spend some time in the shoes of the very people whose lives these policies aim to impact.

What does it mean to arrive in this country with hope in your heart? What does it mean to walk away from family, from the familiar, from foods you’ve eaten all your life, and step into the Unknown? Each of the below books explores these questions, while posing another of its own.

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Summer Reading Beckons (Middle-Grade Round Up)

May 24, 2019 Comments Off on Summer Reading Beckons (Middle-Grade Round Up)

As I’m limping over the finish line that is May, I’m dreaming of summer. Of days at the pool, nights in the backyard, and lots of opportunities for lazing around with our noses in a book. Should you (or your children) be itching for a distraction from making lunches or dressing for another concert, let me help you plot a summer reading list, beginning with my favorite middle-grade reads of late. (Link to my last round up is here; or go back and check out this and this.) First up is a book which should go straight to the top of your list: it’s fresh, funny, and eerily timely.

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Gift Guide 2018: Getting Something Out of Nothing

December 9, 2018 § 1 Comment

I wasn’t initially going to include Alyssa Hollingsworth’s immensely moving debut novel, The Eleventh Trade (Ages 11-14), in my Gift Guide, because it has some preeeeettttyyyy heavy flashback scenes. In other words, it’s not all Ho Ho Ho. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it, couldn’t stop recommending it to my son and to some of his friends during carpool (a few who have just devoured Nowhere Boy, which tackles a similar subject). And then it hit me: this story is actually very much in the spirit of the holidays. It is about giving. It is about going to great lengths, making great sacrifices, in order to give someone you love something he desperately misses. And it is about what happens when you pour yourself into the act of giving. How the act itself becomes a gift—for both of you. « Read the rest of this entry »

Gift Guide 2018: Favorite Chapter Book of the Year

November 28, 2018 § 1 Comment

On my first day of tenth grade, which was also my first day at a new school 300 miles from home, I sat in the back row of an auditorium waiting for my mandatory “Approaches to History” class to begin. I sneaked peaks at my watch, in an effort to avoid making conversation with the students to my left and right, and because it was now several minutes past the scheduled start of class and there was no sign of a teacher.

The crowd began to quiet as the sound of yelling could be heard from the hallway. Two upperclassmen, a boy and girl, wandered into the front of the auditorium, in some kind of heated argument. As we watched, they began to shove one another, books flying, threats delivered; the girl began screaming for help. What kind of horror show have I chosen for my school? I wondered. « Read the rest of this entry »

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